Venice, Italy is not known for bikes. In fact, bikes are banned in town unless you are four years old or younger. In Venice you either walk or take your choice of water vehicle, and it makes sense. But this month bikes were given center stage in Venice at two venues: 1) The Peggy Guggenheim Museum with the Cycling, Cubo-Futurism, and the Fourth Dimension show featuring Jean Metzinger’s At the Cycle-Race Track (Au Vélodrome) and 2) the Biennale for Architecture show Common Ground. The Biennale for Architecture is the pre-eminent international event for architecture, somewhat like the Olympics. Fifty-five countries around the globe host pavilions with concepts that define the important issues in architecture today.
We went to Venice specifically for the Biennale as our friend and colleague Cathy Ho was the Commissioner and Curator for the US Pavilion titled Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good. Also the Biennale promised to be especially relevant to PUBLIC as the overarching “Common Ground” theme dealt heavily with shared public space and its value and meaning. Today Michael Kimmelman reviewed the show in the New York Times “Projects Without Architecture Steal the Show” and singled out the US Pavilion as one of the highlights.
The provocative US theme “Spontaneous Interventions” focused on architecture and designs that come into existence by circumventing traditional planning processes and include such things as Edible Schoolyards, Post Furniture, Streetfilms, Yarnbombing, and over 150 case studies with clever analog “pull down menus”. The floor of the pavilion had a zillion quotes and factoids that covered developments from cases that range in scope and timing from 7000 BC until today. Did you know that the term “Urban design” was first used at Harvard University in 1956? Romp through their website to appreciate the rich resource of information.
The US Pavilion was among a select group of countries to be acknowledged by the jurors for special recognition. This is no small feat at the Biennale. This marks the first award the US has won at this prestigious show that dates back to 1985. That’s right. In over 25 years the US has never been given an award. The other award winners included Japan and Russia.
The importance and value of bikes in the city was featured as prominently as any other urban “intervention”. The bike interventions showcased ranged from guerilla bike paths in Los Angeles, to ghost bikes in New York, to unique bike lighting systems, and to bike share programs in Washington DC and New York. From the clever timeline of the floor of the pavilion it became obvious that bikes have played an important role in our cities and urban lives since the 19th century. At first bikes were used to help people escape from industrial cities to the country. Now that cites have become cultural centers they serve the opposite purpose – they help us connect more closely with cities.
There are numerous reasons why the US Pavilion received the honors. At the top might be the relevance of the concept itself. They also made this comprehensive amount of information palatable, educational, sexy and clever. The exhibition was low on ego and high on purpose, the polar extreme from star architecture.
Cathy Ho selected a curatorial “dream team” that included Paola Antonelli (MoMA), Dave van der Leer (Guggenheim), Ned Kramer (Architect Magazine), Anne Guiney (Urban Design), Michael Sorkin (Terreform), and Zoe Ryan (Art Institute of Chicago). The exhibition design was done by Freecell and Erik Adigard and Patricia McShane of M-A-D. The US Pavilion was something of a Spontaneous Intervention itself, done in a short amount of time on a shoestring budget with many interns yet pulled off so well that viewers would never have known these restraints. It came across like something a professional, well-seasoned team would do. Kudos to the US team.
Again check out the website. Or better yet, go to Venice and see the show. It’s open until November. But leave your bike at home.